Responding To The Winds Of Change In Sub Saharan Africa

SO I’m writing this post from a hostel in Nouakchott. We’ve found ourselves in a very new predicament, WE DON’T HAVE ANY MONEY, well not that we don’t have money but we’ve been told that we won’t be able to access any in this country. Curious to know how we came to this… read on:
After two and a half days pushing our pedals into a head wind from Dakar, we arrived in St Louis. Arriving into any major hub is rather frantic on a bicycle. The traffic coming at you from every direction is a mix of beaten up cars, donkey hauls, community buses and pedestrians, all artfully dodging one another. I sure have to give credit to the people of Senegal for their ability to extract so much life out of a motor vehicle – we’ve seen some pretty raggedy wagons, carting 5 times the load you’d see in Australia and travelling at the same speed down very patchy roads.

St Louis is a very interesting city with a twisted French history and thriving industry built on the rich fishing stocks of the Atlantic and the agriculture sustained by the Senegal River (which also serves as the border between Senegal and Mauritania). St Louis served as the capital of the French colony of Senegal from 1673 to 1902, then later taking on a stint as the capital of Mauritania from 1920 to 1957.

After weaving our way through the industrial entrance we came to a bridge across the Senegal River which takes you to the island metro, a narrow island of many old colonial buildings. We continued over the next small bridge to the sand spit where the fishing trade thrives. Crossing the bridge there was a colourful display of wooden fishing boats as far as you could see. The road along the spit was lined with refrigerated trucks ready to move the days catch. The activity was amazing, kids playing in the street, men carrying big trays of fish, women waiting to prepare the fish for drying and local market. We were blown away with how many trucks were ready to move the fish!

After two and a half days pushing into a head wind I decided to take a closer look at our route plan through West Africa. I know, a little late, this mammoth task had been primarily left to Kristina with my input limited to a couple of countries I was interested in, otherwise merely the occasional yes/no/maybe to questions Kristina had. I was unpleasantly surprised to find that every cycle tourer before us (at least every blog I came across) had travelled in the opposite direction – was there a reason for this?

It so turns out that the Western Sahara bears consistent winds from the north, peaking in March/April with wind storms up to 100km/h and the hottest period being in June.

That we could tell is that we will at least be pushing a 25km/h head wind, though this may lift, and we were in sand-storm season so would have to seek shelter (in our tent since there isn’t any :)) when these come through – ADVENTURE! Yet, the greatest challenge would be our ability to maintain enough water, in such conditions we would need at least four litres each per day – water is very difficult to come by in the desert!

So with this knowledge it was now becoming clear why those before us chose the reverse route :(. I dug in further to understand water and food supply availability. Tourers heading from north to south were carrying between 8-12 litres of water to sustain themselves between water stops. They were also covering between 120-150km/day thanks to the wind on their tail. Reversing that wind makes it challenging for us to cover more than 80km/day >> do the math on the water, not to mention additional effort.

We set out of St Louis into a consistent 25km/h head wind and one camp later we arrived at the border crossing to Senegal. The ferry was a few hours away so we took up the locals on their offer to transport us by canoe – I was a little nervous about the canoe tipping and our bikes plummeting to the bottom of the river, but sure enough we made it across. Heading inland away from the sea breeze the temperature had exceeded 40 deg c and we were feeling pretty buggered so camped soon on the other side of the river. Kristina took a hit from either some bad water or tuna and spent a very rough night being sick.

Waking the next day Kristina felt she was ready to ride – now that there was nothing in her stomach – though soon enough she ran out of puff and we stopped for a meal. Not to far down the road Kristina’s energy levels were still really low, we were slogging into the head wind at around 10km/h. We stopped where we could find shade and Kristina took a nap while I prepared lunch – a delicious spaghetti with citrus, olive oil and garlic :P… 2.5 hours later we were back on the road but not moving very fast.

Arriving into Nouakchott our next challenge was to find a hostel, the layouts of cities don’t seem so clear here and of course we have the language challenges of not speaking French or Arabic when asking the locals – but after a few words of exchange and many hand gestures we zeroed in on a hostel to take refuge and recover before our next challenge.

SO I’m writing this post from a hostel in Nouakchott. We’ve found ourselves in a very new predicament, WE DON’T HAVE ANY MONEY. Wow, what would you do in that situation, the closest cities/countries where we know we can access money are either 330km to the south or 1000km to the north.

It turns out the only bank card you can use in Mauritania is a VISA, and guess which card we don’t have.

After spending hours knocking on the doors of banks I retreated back to the hostel to try and work out how we would solve this one… Kristina suggested we take our remaining Senegal cash to an exchange – phew, good idea – heading back to the banks I found that no one would exchange them, only US or Euro, then finally one of the ‘Africa Banks’ (small businesses who wheel and deal in currency exchange) took them. We were soo relieved that we could pay our bills.

Okay, that behind us, WHERE TO NOW?? With only enough cash remaining to sustain ourselves for a day or two we would have to devise a cunning plan to continue our expedition north.

Our options appear to be:

  1. Work out a way to fast track ourselves forward to a town we know we can access money, seemingly Dakhla in the Western Sahara. This would likely involve a two day drive, stopping in Nouadhibou where we would have to work out where/how to sleep. Consequently we would have to convince a driver that we would pay our bill at the final destination, OR
  2. Booking a flight online to somewhere close to our route and where we know we can access money. Meaning we miss a good chunk of Mauritania and the Western Sahara.

HOW WOULD YOU DECIDE? Please let us know in the comments 🙂